Whatever response we might have had to the MLC story – and there have been many – it has been an insight into one of Australia’s “old school tie" networks.
The drama around the sacking of the elite Melbourne girls school’s former principal, Rosa Storelli, reveals a web of public identities as past and present board members, as well as various wealthy benefactors.
We would hope all Australian schools are similarly endowed with successful and well-connected people concerned with the governance and promotion of their schools.
But it looks unlikely for the schools attended by the children of Claymore who participated in the recent Four Corners program, and others like them in disadvantaged communities around Australia.
Schools serving disadvantaged communities can be exemplary, and have excellent outcomes. Some of these were the subject of another Four Corners documentary earlier in the year. Even so, as the Gonski report documents, better educational outcomes are attained in private schools and this is linked to their higher levels of funding and resources.
While the focus has rightly been on schools funding, the role of that elusive substance called “social capital” may be obscured as a factor in the better educational outcomes in private schools such as MLC. It is a substance which its board and benefactors seem exceptionally well-placed to cultivate.
There are various ways of defining social capital. An ABS discussion paper says:
“Though there is no universal definition of social capital, there appears to be general agreement on the importance of networks, trust, reciprocity and other social norms to social capital.”
It encompasses interpersonal, community, and family networks which facilitate access to a wide range of resources including information, knowledge, skills and jobs. It relates to power and efficacy in attaining personal and community goals and, as such, shapes structures of power and inequality within a society.
In Bowling Alone, author Robert Putnam differentiates between two forms of social capital.
He says “bonding social capital” is fundamentally inward looking and serves to strengthen the interests and identity of particular groups. Reciprocity and trust are important dimensions of “bonding social capital.” They foster a sense of security and belonging within communities.
“Bridging social capital” in contrast is an outwardly- oriented asset forging links to external networks and communities. This is essential for expanding domains of influence and access to a wider range of networks and resources.
A school community like MLC is able to nurture both bonding and bridging forms of social capital very well. Access to both helps to maximise opportunities and, also to minimise social risks within communities.
Social capital and intergenerational social risks
A social risk is essentially a risk of poverty, deprivation and social exclusion.
Sociologist and economist Gosta Esping-Andersen identifies three types of social risk.
The first is what he calls “class-related” risk such as long term unemployment, or reliance on a very low income with few or no pathways for improvement. Then there is “life course” risk - such as among young families with high needs and low incomes, or in old age when earnings decline.
The third is “intergenerational risk”, overlapping with class risks but relating more to inherited opportunity and life chances. This means that children from disadvantaged families are more likely to be disadvantaged themselves.
It is in this last area that Esping-Andersen notes the role of access to “social capital” in maximising opportunity and minimising risk. It is very often inherited and translates into economic advantages especially through employment opportunities.
The children of Claymore, and similar communities in Australia and other parts of the world (such as those featured in this UK documentary Poor Kids, shown on ABC last year) are particularly exposed to intergenerational risk as a result of poor access to social capital. In contrast, the children attending MLC would appear to be very well sheltered.
The question is whether being raised in Claymore should be a one-way ticket to poverty, deprivation and social exclusion. Of course, it doesn’t have to be and shouldn’t be - but that will depend not only on a good education, but also access to social capital.
Social capital, public funding and social infrastructure
The Gonski review dragged into the open the disturbing trends in educational disparities between private schools and schools serving disadvantaged communities. The effectiveness of the Government’s response remains to be seen over coming years.
However, the creation of social capital must surely be part of the agenda for ensuring all Australian children have opportunities to do well - and to support the Gonski reforms. It will flourish where communities are well-resourced, where there is access to decent housing, decent jobs and a wide range of community facilities - or social infrastructure.
One important example relates to housing. The public housing stock at Claymore is now seriously degraded, consistent with trends around Australia as governments have progressively reduced investment in public housing according to Lucy Groenhart.
Whatever improvements are made in the education sector, the benefits for the children of Claymore – and similar communities - will be compromised if they continue to live in such blighted conditions. It is not only a question of a poor quality physical environment but the effects this has on reducing social capital formation within communities which have been disempowered and abandoned.
Children’s capacity to do well is also inextricably linked to how well their parents are doing. If we want better opportunity and outcomes for disadvantaged children we need to look to the opportunities of their parents for community integration and employment. Community facilities such as neighbourhood houses and community centres are vital to this, as are the conduits through adult education and training that lead to decent paid employment.
In this regard we should be greatly concerned about state government budget cuts in social programs and education. Debt burdens for future generations may be used as a rationale for spending cuts. But equally the impact on future generations of reducing the programs which support social capital formation must be considered. Looking to how public funds can be more equitably, efficiently and effectively used, as in the case of education, is a better path.